The Illinois Issues Humanities Essays (second series)
The End of the Immigrant Church
By EUGENE KENNEDY
This second series of humanities essays is made possible in part by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities.
This is the third of five original essays by distinguished humanists to be published in Illinois Issues in 1982. No restrictions in regard to style, form or perspective have been placed on the authors. They have been encouraged to use any one of a number of approaches including exposition, analysis, satire and parody.
Reprints of these essays are available at no cost from the Illinois Humanities Council, 201 W. Springfield, Champaign, Ill. 61820.
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Archbishop John Patrick Cody arrived in Chicago on a sultry August day in 1965. The fireman's son who had achieved his lifelong ambition of heading the country's largest diocese, was already as out of date as the Panama Limited passenger train on which he arrived. But nothing really ever went the way that Cody wanted it in the great diocese that sat like a royal crest above the spreading continent. The late Cardinal Cody will be remembered not so much for the last months of his life when, frail and Rooseveltian, he waited for death to deliver him from federal investigation, as for the symbolic meaning of his passing. Buried with him was something that was over when he came to Chicago: the immigrant phase of the American Catholic experience. Chicago's new archbishop, Joseph L. Bernardin, is the first true leader of post-immigrant Catholicism. Ironically, Andrew Greeley, Cody's most vociferous critic, stands with him as a symbol of magisterial times gone by.
The unlettered Catholics who came to the United States in the last century fashioned a way of life within the host Protestant culture that was tight, intellectually narrow and wrapped in an invisible and largely impermeable membrane that resisted social osmosis with the rest of the country. It was also the most successful era of development in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. This Catholic structure defended itself proudly against doctrinal and moral compromise; it was, above all, obedient to the authority which was exercised for generations without any serious challenge by its bishops and clergy and other religious teachers. Immigrant Catholicism was, in fact, held together by the vigorous churchmen who retained their power over their flocks by exercising it regularly on an infinitely detailed category of behaviors, ranging from what the faithful could eat on Fridays to what they could think or do in the innermost chambers of their personal lives.
The regimented immigrant church expanded quickly in the large cities like Chicago which attracted the largest numbers of Catholics from other countries. They grew comfortable and powerful, almost casually, as they moved into and made their own police and fire departments along with educational systems and, of course, city halls in large urban centers. Protestant Americans may not have been anxious to share their monopoly of power with Catholics (on Reformation Sunday in the month before John Kennedy was elected some Protestants were asked to stand up and be counted against ceding their rightful White House franchise to a Catholic) but they could not, in the long run, fight off these popish loyalists who by their numbers and their energy were taking over in so many areas.
The leaders of the Catholic immigrants — indeed, the only educated persons among them — were the clergy who, standing at the center of their primary social unit, exacted obedience to the faith and served as arbiters, translators, as well as supporters and defenders of their flocks as they adjusted to American ways. Huge, cathedral-like neighborhood churches stand
One of the ironies of the present time is the overbuilt condition in which the Catholic Church now finds itself. The immigrant churches stand almost empty in many neighborhoods that have changed around them several times since they were erected. Catholic schools fulfilled their original function and can no longer be supported; vocations have dropped dramatically. This decline in the absolute number of Catholic schools and in priests and religious does not signify a weakening of faith as much as the close of the highly successful immigrant period of American Catholic culture. Catholics educated their children to broaden the possibilities of their advancement in America. They achieved that goal with the result that a well-educated, theologically sophisticated generation of Catholics came to maturity at mid-century. They no longer perceived the priesthood and religious life as dominant choices for their lives and they were well aware of the possibilities of lay leadership in a variety of Catholic causes. No diocese encouraged such adult lay activity more than Chicago. Few understood, however, that such progress was bound to change the balance of power in the American Catholic Church.
The Second Vatican Council was born of similar ferment within the church in Western Europe. The council is mistakenly blamed for causing changes in the church. It was rather an event generated by changes that had taken place earlier in the century for western Catholicism. It was an already transformed Archdiocese of Chicago into which Cody — rotund, beaming, confident, with no dream of shadowed days ahead — made his majestic entrance 17 years ago. Some of Cody's most publicized clashes with the laity arose from his administrative efforts to deal with the far advanced changes in Chicago's Catholic life. He spent his years, making nobody happy including himself, closing down and auctioning off the no longer productive physical assets of the immigrant inheritance, bargaining strenuously with the lay Catholic teachers' union and holding off the democratic demands of his priests. He fought a rearguard action against the inevitability of history, convinced that he was defending the faith. In fact he was defending, naturally enough, the prerogatives of power that the immigrant church gave to the office of archbishop of Chicago.
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It was a far cry from the days when the Catholics rallied unquestioningly around their priests, forgiving their human failings generously, supporting them in ways of life usually better than their own, and giving them a status of unassailable respect and dignity in the community. Priests operated not only on the parish level but in close relationship to politicians and civic officials to whom they were often related by blood as well as belief; they helped organize the union movement that guaranteed humane conditions of work and life for their people; they marched to secure the rights of their parishioners a century before the street demonstrations of the 1960s. That generation of clergy secured a privileged position which, until only a few years ago, was granted without hesitation in cities like Chicago anyone wearing a Roman collar. The golden
St. Mary's was the achievement, as personal and eccentric as that of William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon, of George Cardinal Mundelein, the Brooklyn-born prelate who planned the scattering of handsome Georgian buildings as the Catholic University of the West. Mundelein was the unself-conscious inheritor of the good will of the immigrant Catholics who wanted their bishops to live in a house as big and as good as that of the mayor or the governor. Having their religious leader live on a par — and sometimes on the same splendid boulevard — with the movers and shakers of WASP America gave the Catholic people a sense of dignity and importance. The immigrants enjoyed vicariously the status they gave to their priests and bishops. Mundelein lived out the role to the hilt, not only enjoying the bishop's gingerbread mansion on the edge of Lincoln Park but building himself a brick replica of Mount Vernon in which to live on the seminary grounds at St. Mary's. Travelling to and from the city in a limousine with crimson strutted wheels, Mundelein ruled in classically imperial style. He presided in a manner that many sons of immigrants grew to love deeply as they pursued their own careers in the church. Mundelein was the prince, the collector of art and rare books, the architect of an enormous building program, the powerful Chicago regent of the last surviving crowned head of any significance in Europe — the pope himself. This pervasive fascination with the regal side of the Roman Catholic Church must be appreciated as a significant factor both in attracting and sustaining loyal and energetic generations of priests and bishops in the service of the immigrant church. It was the rich, creamy grain which, in the New Testament justification, the working oxen were allowed to eat as they ground it on their treadmills.
Americans were entranced with monarchy as the 20th century began. The wealthy sought marriages with royalty for their daughters, titles for themselves, and constructed ways of life based on European manners and customs. They lived in castles, sometimes transported stone by stone across the Atlantic. This secular enthrallment with the style of European crowned heads had its ecclesiastical counterpart in the hearts and imaginations of the priests who climbed out of the immigrant classes to places of esteem and achievement within the American Catholic Church. John Patrick Cody, the son of an immigrant Irishman, was familiar as a youth with the great churchmen, Mundelein among them, who had succeeded so spectacularly to places of authority in the great dioceses of the country. The Catholic Church was the great romance of their lives for it was a treasurehouse of symbols, rites and vestments, a unique and fascinating
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pageant in which a poor boy might become a prince wearing crimson and watered red silk. The panoply of regal Catholicism, supported by the proud and the poor of its parishioners, was a primary source of self-esteem as well as an invitation to the ambitious and dutiful young who would seek a place in its ranks. The generation of cardinal archbishops who dominated the major Eastern American cities in the first half of the century — Mundelein in Chicago, O'Connell in Boston, Daughterly in Philadelphia, Hayes and Spellman in New York — were autocrats who lived and ruled in unchallenged majesty, their power complete and intact until their last breaths were taken.
John Patrick Cody pursued the path that so many other American Catholic young men did on their way to positions of great power in the church. He blended ecclesiastical ambition with a desire to serve in a personality that was perfect for the clerical world of Roman Catholicism. Jovial, dutiful, loyal to those higher in authority, Cody was a man of his times who never understood that the cultural swell of immigrant Catholicism — with its adulation of the clergy and its highly romantic version of Church life — had subsided by the time he succeeded to the See of Chicago. Cody had apprenticed himself to the Roman way of things — he visited Rome over a hundred times during his life — to the power and glory of the manners, codes and vesture of the Roman Catholic Church. Romanita marked those destined for places of power in the Catholic Church. No people were as loyal or generous to the pope as Americans in the first half of the 20th century. Millions of faded papal blessings hang in Catholic homes as a small footnote to this devotion to the pope. Protestants feared a pope in the White House because Catholics were so devoted to him.
The years immediately after the Second World War, during which seminaries and religious houses were flooded with vocations, was the triumphant high tide of the immigrant church in America. But a tide's highest point is precisely that at which it turns and begins to run out swiftly. The rapid transformation of the Catholic culture took place largely because it had succeeded so well in educating and Americanizing its members. This led
The election of John Kennedy in 1960 can be seen as the symbol of the completed cycle of the immigrant church. The natural development of a vastly changed Catholic culture may be observed in countless Catholic families. The men who fought in World War I raised children who fought in World War II, who in turn raised children who protested against the Vietnam War. From grandfather to grandson there occurred remarkable changes in outlook, occupational goals, perception of the world and religious belief and practice. Against the familiar background of such generational changes the immigrant Catholic Church died and gave birth to a new and different Catholic culture in this country. Cardinal John Cody's ecclesiastical career began in one era, prospered in another, and, not fitting well, declined in the third. His years as archbishop of Chicago will be regarded as an interlude to unavoidable conflict, a cruel transition that was, ironically, the necessary outcome of the faith and sacrifices of the immigrant church. Cody, in fact, was profoundly a part of the unravelling culture of immigrant Catholicism. As leaf to growing tree so was his greening, blossoming and finally withered career, not against nature but part of it.
Other indications that the immigrant era of American Catholicism is truly ended may be found in such events as the near collapse of Catholic publishing and the rise of a new Catholic literature. Those newspapers and magazines which have survived are either subsidized by religious orders and other sources — one successfully sought a grant from the Lilly Foundation a few years before it stopped printing — or are engaged in fundraising campaigns to keep publishing. The
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reason is that the stable, cohesive culture of the immigrant church which once supported a host of special-interest Catholic magazines no longer exists. A new, self-observant, and often critical, literature about Catholicism appeared in the general literary world. John Gregory Dunne's True Confessions, published in 1977, was first novel of true quality to emerge the post-immigrant period of the American Catholic Church. A spate of lesser books and plays, some bitter, some gently self-mocking, have since appeared. They all mine the immigrant inheritance, the wondrous, regimented and profoundly human culture of American Catholicism. No such work could or did appear during the full bloom of the immigrant period. A masterpiece like True Confessions would have been considered an attack on the church rather than a novel that delivered, among other things, a subtle understanding of their own cultural passage to Catholics. Time and distance are needed for a literature of ironic self-observation to develop. Just as children must grow up and move into lives of their own to be able to criticize their parents fairly, so Catholics had to emerge from the family-like life of the immigrant church in order to identify and appreciate it. Not all the literature of the post-immigrant church has equal value. The exploration of Catholicism by the artistic imagination, however, is a clear indication that the era that inspired it is at an end.
The major event of the 20th century occurred in the dramatic reordering of the relationships of the rulers and the ruled in Western Europe. The king, the kaiser and the tsar, those fated look-alike cousins, were the last autocrats to rule, supposedly by divine right, over hundreds of millions of people. The end of the royal houses around the time of the First World War and the socialization and democratization of the masses were the culmination of generations of discontent and bloody struggle with the concept of absolute authority. One can argue that the Roman Catholic Church remains a monarchy of sorts, but one cannot deny that the regal aspects of papal rule have been extraordinarily modified in the last 50 years. The rejection by Pope John Paul I of the crown-like tiara as his symbol of office and its replacement by the pallium of pastoral service make his 30 days in office memorable. This movement of the church towards a less absolutist presence in the world was a response to a deep and irreversible historical change. The awakening consciousness of the American Catholic Church — its move away from the immigrant mentality — continues to this day. Cardinal Cody's funeral — the burial of a cardinal archbishop rather than an individual — was the last great ecclesiastical funeral Chicago will ever see, for it was the funeral of the last archbishop who attempted to rule with absolute power. That Cody could have been the subject of a newspaper investigation, that his own judgments on the dispersal of church funds could have been questioned by anyone: these would have been unimaginable in the earlier era of immigrant Catholicism. When scandals
One might argue that the terrible problems in which Cardinal Cody found himself were actually the resolution of the problem that had slowly grown during the generations in which the archbishopric of Chicago became the great ecclesiastical prize for ambitious American clerics. It was regarded as the premiere position in the American hierarchy, the rich reward that went, along with its power, priests and people, to the most loyal and, therefore, most deserving bishop in the country. The office grew to problematic size when the archbishop was made a corporation sole under Illinois law so that his authority was an absolute in a secular as well as an ecclesiastical sense. By clinging to the ideas of authority that he was trained to revere, Cody unwittingly reduced the range and impact of that authority. What Cody thought he was preserving of archiepiscopal power by insisting on it even when it no longer worked very well, he actually splintered into irretrievable pieces.
Cody was not, however, the only figure whose life and career became inextricably linked with the changing American Catholic culture. Nor has this taken place only in Chicago. One should expect that Chicago, which led the other dioceses of the country in making progress in the shimmering high noon of the immigrant culture,
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would also reflect the transformation earlier and more dramatically than any other great Catholic center. Cody interacted with a group of priests who had been living in and enjoying the acclaim and support of the last days — like the final weeks of the sweetest of memory's summers — of that era of tribal establishment. These priests were trained in the great halls and magnificent distances of Mundelein's estate-like seminary; their summers were spent at villas 400 hundred miles north on the trembling edges of Lake Michigan. They worked hard but lived well as the privileged clerical class, and they were accustomed to archbishops who, if they ruled like autocrats, left them in many ways alone. Cardinals Stritch and Meyer, for example, are remembered almost sentimentally as benevolent presences even though each exercised authority that was never questioned the way Cody's was. They fit, one might say, into their age much more comfortably and were accepted as part of living in the topmost pane of the glass window of Catholic cultural life. In those days Catholics liked their archbishops to have unquestioned authority; that was part of the way things held together, the way things worked; God was in his heaven and all was well with the world.
This dynamic — of the archbishop as the central giver and withholder of every good gift and permission — was precisely the focus of the enormous reworking of relationships to authority which has been the great psychological task of church and state in this century. The priests who, within a year of Cody's arrival, organized a union-like Association of Chicago Priests, were, it is true, demanding more democracy within the church. They were, however, demanding it from their father figure, the archbishop, because it was the only way that it could be granted to them within the church's closed system. By betting everything on having a better relationship with Cody — something they never achieved — they accented anew the dominant role of the archbishop. The priests of Chicago became obsessively preoccupied with their new archbishop. Cody — and his hold on power — became the subject of greatest concern for both conservative and liberal priests and people. As long as the office of the archbishop was perceived as the font and source of approbation and permission, those who seemed like rebels were, in a way they never suspected, reinforcing the patriarchal lines of the dissolving clerical church. Lay people, as they become more confident of their own theological judgments, withdrew in increasing numbers from the white hot edge of combat. They found that they did not need their archbishop's permission to do good, they did not need his approval in order to attain self-esteem, and they did not need the tension that the battle with the autocratic church introduced into their lives. The sharp decline in Catholics' approach to the confessional box was an external signal of their internal refusal to subject their consciences to ecclesiastical judgment. The collapse of neurotic guilt over the pervasive possibility of mortal sin in events as trivial as eating meat on
Curiously enough, the priest who was Cardinal Cody's most vocal critic, Andrew Greeley, is a symbol, not of the new age of which he has written and spoken so often, but of the dissolution of an older sociological era in the church. This priest represents the extraordinarily talented person who was attracted to the service of the Church and for whom the Church could never find a suitable role. He was not alone in this situation, of course, and studies have shown that many able priests and religious gradually drift to the side of their culture, finding their own ways, using their talents on its own outside the prescribed possibilities of clerical and religious life. It is no wonder that so many religious woman, for example, have run for political office lately. There are further signs of the disintegration of the culture which was once able to forbid such adventures, even as it was able to force priests to sacrifice their innate abilities and to endure long frustrating years carrying out routine tasks under the command of their bishops. That does not work anymore, as the writer priest's activities over the last decade as Cody's sharpest critic fully attest. Indeed, Greeley has never been the subject of any ecclesiastical censure or censorship. That he was never able to attract the reprimands he publicly courted gives further evidence of the collapse of the tough discipline of another time.
We are witnessing the last stand of a generation seeded generously with energy and ability who have believed firmly in a romantic vision of a democratized church. Greeley has championed this cause in a thousand ways through his writing and research. He has, however, also unconsciously supported the church as the supreme and all-encompassing social reality, as the dream-like city of human fulfillment. His vision of the church is that of a liberalized autocracy in which newly enlightened and charismatic leaders will sit nobly on the thrones of the departed autocrats of old. He is concerned that those who fill the positions of power should be well-trained students of the modern world, that they be sympathetic to human plights, that they be, in other words, good father figures. But father figures nonetheless. The well-educated Catholics who have emerged from the immigrant culture to participate in and shape the fate of pluralistic America no longer need or pay much attention to those who comport themselves as father figure ecclesiastics. An enlightened hierarchy presiding over the moral lives of the Catholic people is an idea whose time has already passed. It is an attempt to restructure the paternalistic church that no longer exists. Greeley cites research that shows that Catholics, in vast numbers, disagree with their episcopal leaders on subjects
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like birth control. He wants bishops to heed the message of such dissent. It is, however, already too late to promote this romantic, reworked
Updating was not enough, however, for many adult Catholics who, delighted about the promise of democratic structures, gave their energies to parish councils and other organizations only to find that the real power remained where it always was, in clerical hands. Such Catholics quickly moved out of such pro forma exercises in futility. They do not need hurt and embarrassment — which many suffered — in lives in which they already have enough problems. Many priests cannot accept the fact that they say few things that really influence their people's decisions on any plane these days. That is, nonetheless, the truth.
Father Greeley rose brilliantly from the last great period of the immigrant Church. He will be 55 next year, which is almost the average age for priests in this country, and he stands right next to Cody as a symbol of the Catholic culture, with which both men were enthralled. It was their battleground for they believed in many of the same things. Bright, seemingly isolated, the subject of enormous controversy, insistent on being identified behind a Roman collar, Greeley is an arresting and touching figure. He may be the last ardent supporter of the essential dynamics of a bygone Church. He cares more about the archiepiscopal office of Chicago than almost all of the lay Catholics he has encouraged.
This is not to say that the office of the archbishop — or the work of priests — is not respected or without influence in Chicago. It remains the most important ecclesiastical appointment in the United States, but the great period of the clerically dominated church has come to an end. Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, a modern church leader, understands that no bishop exercises automatic or unquestioned authority. His style is to exercise authority with great self-discipline and restraint. He leads a changed Catholic church. He must now earn in a new way what was lavished without hesitation on his predecessors by hardy immigrant believers. Apprenticed through long years in sensitive positions, Bernardin understands this well. But the great days of the autocratic church leaders — the years when Cardinal Mundelein rode in splendor through the seminary grounds that required the services of a hundred gardeners — that wonderful, romantic church in which poor boys could become princes on whom the poor eagerly thrust their respect and donations, that church filled with mystery that attracted thousands of young Catholics to its service — all these and their splendid memories are buried with Cardinal Cody in the bishop's chapel at Mount Carmel Cemetery. The new archbishop heads the Church in a city in which the majority of Catholics will welcome, respect and work with him in relationships far different from those that characterized the 100 years of immigrant experience that has now ended.
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